“My husband is stuck in Himachal Pradesh. I am alone with my young kids to look after, I have no money left, neither my family is enrolled in PDS. My Rabi crop is ready for harvesting, but no labor is available. Even you people have stopped visiting us! Who is going to listen to our need?”
It was an early morning call from Nazma Khatun. Her voice was trembling on the other side of the call. She is an SHG member from a small village called Deogawan in Deosar block of Madhya Pradesh. When the nationwide lockdown was first announced in March, our phones got flooded with similar calls from the hamlets. It was perplexing indeed, not only for such small and marginal farmers who had their crops on the fields, all set to be harvested, but also for us. We were fortunate enough to have a better understanding of the situation, but what could be a suitable solution to the crisis, was certainly unknown. We were all confined to our own rooms. It seemed that decades of hard work that went into reviving conditions of the marginalized rural citizens was all set to get wasted. And assisting on-farm activities has been one of the core strengths of Deosar team – but still we faltered for reasons obvious enough.
On the other hand we started receiving news, coupled with very disturbing images, of thousands of migrant workers, crisscrossing the country despite stringent lockdown rules. Their perilous journey was right in front of our eyes by virtue of our geographical location. The state highways connecting many of the northern and eastern states with that of the south, run across Deosar. Countless men and women wanted to reach their respective villages in Jharkhand, UP, Bihar, braving the exhaustion of walking hundreds and thousands of kilometers under the mid-April sun, with their luggage and young kids. Some were traveling on feet, some on cycles, and some came by trucks. We realized that despite guidelines on working from home we have to step out, it was time to assist people, both on the highways and at the remote villages.
We partnered with the state machinery to raise awareness around the pandemic, deliver relief in the forms of ration and safety equipment kits. Keeping the farmer’ needs in mind, we started arranging door-to-door training for upcoming Kharif crop. Simultaneously, we started establishing contact with stranded migrants at different places and passing on information regarding government rescue measures. In each of these calls, one could easily sense the tremendous distress and agony that each of the returning migrant worker was subjected to.
“How should we help these people? What could be the most effective way to reduce their peril? After all, we have never done disaster management or such kind of a relief work ever before! What if we end up committing any mistake?” we pondered. But the time was not right to contemplate, it was time to act. The highway next to Deosar town is undergoing massive reconstruction work, and therefore is devoid of any shack or shop. One of the most apt way to serve the returning migrants was to set up a ‘24x7 relief camp’ that would provide food, water, mask, soaps, milk-powder for babies and sanitary napkins for women migrants. Trucks and buses carrying back migrant workers, started halting at our camp every day. There would be suspicion in the beginning, but with assurance of safety and hygiene at our end, the travelers would get down from the vehicles and stand in queue in front of the camp and take ration-hygiene kits from us.
Siyaram, was one such migrant laborer in his late twenties, who stood at the queue. When his turn came his slippers caught my attention – they were completely worn out!
“How did your chappal (slippers) become like this? How long have you been walking?” I asked. “I was working in Andhra… it’s been more than 15 days and I guess I have already covered 1000 kms – managing a nook on the trucks at times, and on foot for at least half the distance. I have to go to Uttar Pradesh…some 100 kms yet to cover. With no money left I my pocket, I could not change my chappals… see my heels are full of blisters”, narrated Siyaram.
Thankfully, we collaborated with #WalkInMyShoes (a group of local volunteers) to arrange for some new slippers and sandals for these weary migrants who were walking down the distance. I gave Siyaram a fresh pair of slippers. With tears limning his eye-lids Siyaram left for the final stretch of his journey – another 100 kms! And just like Siyaram, 15 more wayfarers were in need of new “Chappals”. We managed to provide all of them with new pairs. Their radiant smiles upon receiving the new slippers drenched our hearts with such satisfaction, which no words can ever express! In our 18 ‘day-&-night’ long migrant relief camp we served around 1700 migrants.
Back in the hamlets of Deosar, what lies ahead is absolutely uncertain. But Nazma is not left alone any more. The village resource persons successfully reached out to her. Not only has the harvested been taken care of but a meticulous planning for the upcoming Kharif crop has also been done at the hamlets. Like the urban centres, wearing masks and washing hands along with maintaining social distance are new normal in these far flung hamlets. But they are coping up well. Many of the small and marginal farmers have already emerged victorious in the tough fight against poverty – with sheer zest and insurmountable determination, they are hopeful to conquer this pandemic too ! And in this battle, like always, we at the Deosar team are with the community members 24x7!